It's no secret to Washington State fans that the 2008 Cougar defense was not exactly fantastic. If one was to produce a highlight video in the style of NFL films chronicling the season's effort it could very well be titled, "80 yards and a cloud of dust." How much can we expect things to change this year? We know there were a lot of injuries involved last year, but we also know a lack of talent played a major role as well. How far are the Cougars away from being an "average" defensive squad?
When we posed this question for discussion on our inaugural podcast, we used the statistic points per game allowed to determine if the Cougs would be able to rise to mediocrity. Obviously, the main goal of the defense is to prevent the other team from scoring, but there are other factors that play into the points that the defensive unit has very little control over. Quoting the Cougars astronomical 43.8 points per game allowed number mostly tells us how terrible the team was as a whole.
A stat that is more effective in determining the effectiveness of a unit on its own is yards per play (I'll refer to it as YPP from now on). In 2008, YPP showed that the Cougar defense did not need help from a bad offensive and suspect special teams to allow points, they were perfectly capable of doing that on their own. Wazzu allowed 6.5 YPP last year. Compare that to the national average of 5.5. On each play, the Cougs allows a full yard more than an average FBS defensive unit. Couple that with the fact that they were unable to create turnovers (only 13 takeaways all season) and it became pretty easy for the other team to move down the field.
So is there anything that can be taken away from last year that gives Coug fans hope heading into this season that our defensive fortunes will turn for the better? We usually like to point to last season's Apple Cup. The defensive banded together and stiffened up against a Husky team that was determined to run through them all game long. However, the Huskies were not a good offensive team. The Cougar defense was playing the closest thing to their equals all year. Instead, I'd rather take a look at the first opponent the Cougs played last year, who was perhaps the best offense they would face. Also, by looking at the beginning of the season, we can see a defense that may have been its "least injured" and had yet to endure the psychological impact that comes from a 66-3 defeat.
Oklahoma State was statistically one of the top offensive teams in the country last season. They moved the ball efficiently on the ground and through the air to a tune of 7.0 YPP (Now I know the rulebook in the Big 12 strictly forbids defense to be played in conference games, but that is an impressive number nonetheless.) Conventional wisdom says the Washington State defense should have been overwhelmed, but for that game, they were not. The Cowboys managed just 5.3 YPP. That's below the national number and almost two yards under what Oklahoma State put up over the entire season. That's right, in 2008, we can say that the WSU defense made an offensive unit look "below average." The final point total wasn't pretty (39) but it was definitely the case where the defense got little help from the special teams and offensive units (OSU had scoring drives of 17, 8, and 39 yards, a kickoff return for touchdown, and a safety).
I know this is a small, selective sample size, but it is a special case. The defense was ravaged by injuries the rest of the season and we have to put some value in the fact that they may have lost a little confidence in themselves after the Cal blowout. They have a very long way to go to become an average squad this year, there is little doubt about that. There is a some hope though. If they can stay relatively healthy (no team stays completely healthy in football) and if they buy into the fact that last season has no bearing on what they can do in 2009, there is a small chance that they can put together some wonderfully average defense for us to watch this fall. How nice would that be?